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Strangers in a Christmas Land

Strangers in a Christmas Land

I borrowed my title for this blog from the clever folks on our church’s worship planning team. The title came about as we discussed whether to hold a “Blue Christmas” service this year. If you’re not familiar with Blue Christmas, sometimes called “Longest Night,” or “Darkest Night,” the service is a lament service offered sometime in December. The goal is to offer a time for people to experience sadness in the midst of all the holiday cheer.

If you’ve ever been heartbroken, depressed or simply down in the dumps during the Christmas season, you know how hard it is. Everyone else is fa la laing along while you’re just hoping to make it through. It’s hard enough to be sad. It’s even harder to be sad when every store front is urging you to “be of good cheer.”

We can, indeed, feel like strangers in a Christmas land.

The feeling comes when everyone else is complaining of the busyness of the season and you’re spending your evenings watching re-runs of holiday movies on TV.

Or when you decorate your tree and remember the last time you decorated it with them–the child, or parent, or spouse whose presence no longer graces the house.

It comes when the service is full of stories about expectation and pregnancy but your story is full of doubt and disappointment.

And sometimes it just comes for no reason. When the nostalgia suddenly turns to grief. Or the tinsel is suddenly revealed as nothing more than cheap strands of a fool’s dream.

Sometimes, we don’t even know why we’re being left out of this Christmas fairy land, we just know that we are. But what makes it worse is the pressure to feel better. Because for the love of Christ (literally) it’s a celebration. We’re supposed to “be of good cheer,” and “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” and celebrate because “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

So here’s what I want to say about that. I’m not at all convinced that the point of Christmas is to be happy. I think the point of Christmas is to remember that God makes a way. God makes a way through grief, through happiness, through distraction and through relentless boredom. God finds us no matter where we are. And maybe God isn’t on calendar time, and maybe God doesn’t know that God’s required to show up by December 25, but God is making a way.

One of the buzzwords at Christmas is “glory,” which might help us out here. Biblically speaking, glory means “making the presence of God known.” On the other hand, we sometimes we use “glory” much the way we would use the word “delicious,” as though it describes a particular experience. But there’s nothing about glory that requires us to feel happy–in fact, most biblical and personal instances of God’s glory revealed come in times of hardship.

Our work this Christmas season is the same as it is the rest of the year: to look for God in all times and places. So maybe you’re looking for God’s glory amidst a too-busy winter schedule. And maybe you’re looking for God’s glory amidst the ghosts of Christmas past. Maybe you’re even having one of those amazing Advent seasons that comes along once in a while, where you’re finding it easy to stay centered and focused and prayerful. Those are all fine ways to do Christmas.

But if you’re feeling like a stranger in a Christmas land this year, remember that glory and cheer are two different things. Just as we can relieve ourselves of the pressure to do Christmas perfectly, we can relieve ourselves of the pressure to do Christmas in manic cheerfulness. Focus instead on glory–not the forced glory of humans trying to create an experience but the glory of the God who makes a way.


Book Review Friday! The Year Without a Purchase

Book Review Friday! The Year Without a Purchase

“Dude, I vote patio.”

This was the subject of an email I sent to my husband this week. I went on. “The concrete guy was just here to give an estimate. We’ll have to take a huge chunk from savings but I think it’s worth it. It’s really a quality of life issue.”

Wait, a quality of life issue?

Now, here’s what I meant by that:

  1. Our current patio is miserable. It is flagstone in gravel, clearly a DIY job by the previous owners.
    1. The weeds grow faster there than they do anywhere else. I weed whipped our patio several times this summer.
    2. The unevenness of the gravel/flagstone combination has led to more than one chair nearly tipping over backwards when someone tries to stand up.
    3. The step from the door to the patio is 18 inches.  Height that steps are supposed to be?  7 inches.
  2. Due to all these factors, we do not ever sit on our patio.
  3. We like to sit outside. We have a lovely view of the mountains in one direction and the prairie dogs in the other.
  4. Our neighbors and friends all have lovely patios and I feel ashamed of ours.
  5. We do not have a backyard tiki bar, which would be awesome.

But quality of life issue? I quickly amended my email to say, “obviously this is a first world problem,” because I felt ashamed of myself for using the words “new patio, savings, and quality of life issue” in the same sentence.

This is the kind of thinking that author Scott Dannemiller draws our attention to in his book “The Year Without a Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting.” The title is true to the book. Dannemiller takes us through the ups and downs of this challenge, which he and his wife embarked on after feeling disillusioned and discontent with a life that is largely driven by acquiring things.


Perhaps the most compelling part of Dannemiller’s story is the combination of revolutionary thinking and typical American living. I love the stories of people who cast off all materialistic concerns and live off-grid. I browse tiny houses on Pinterest and imagine buying 30 acres in the middle of nowhere where I can spend my days happily producing my own food. I cannot live that life, nor is it practical for most people.   (Cities and towns exist for a sociological purpose, after all.) Still, I do want to live an intentional life and this gives me a way to think about being revolutionary in my own suburban American setting.

Tiny House
You see yourself in that chair, right?

Dannemiller expertly blends his personal stories with research and theology. He talks about the challenges of raising children with real attention to the decisions we have to make. Obviously, we know that a new backpack isn’t a “quality of life” issue—or is it? We all want children who aren’t materialistic brats but we also want children who aren’t bullied, taunted and excluded due to their cast-off clothing. What’s a parent to do?

Jockstraps and underwear come up more than once in this book, reminding us that the political can be very, very personal. Dannemiller doesn’t shy away from the stories but tells them with all the grace possible when discussing undergarments. I was reminded as I read that many people do not have underwear, hygiene items or other things that make up the very basic part of our household. Solving problems of poverty and inequality are amazingly complicated, coming down to the most basic and unsexy things making a tremendous difference.

Most importantly, the book is inspiring, not scolding. I was two chapters in before I was ready to take on my own year without a purchase—almost. I might start with a month. (I did a week several years ago.  It was harder than you think.)  But the real point is that my commitment to being less materialistic was renewed and stretched.  I will definitely start by implementing some of the less drastic ideas that Dannemiller suggests, and some of the solutions that they find along the way. (Heads-up, family, you’re all getting experience gifts for Christmas this year!)

Want a quick peak right now? You can also find Dannemiller over at his blog.  Seriously, though..this book is worth reading.

As for Book Review Fridays–I don’t know whether that will become a thing here at Barefoot Family but I like the idea.  I’d actually like the idea even more if other people wanted to read and write along.  Any takers?  Message me here or find me on Facebook if you’re up for writing about a book you loved.

Happy long weekend!

A Beautiful Thing: Turning the Table on Wastefulness

A Beautiful Thing: Turning the Table on Wastefulness

FlowerWith another holiday around the corner, my family is in full swing getting organized for An Event.  If you’ve ever watched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” or any other movie about families, you know what this looks like.  You might even live it yourself.  Yesterday I had 3 multi-step conversations about who was bringing what for Easter dinner.  That sounds reasonable until you know that each of these people had also talked to other people and we were all just going around talking to each other, confirming with this person, talking to the original person.  This is why conference calling was invented.

Here is my confession: I am sometimes drained by these conversations.  (Again, if you have family, you know what I mean.  Other members of my own family feel this way.  I am not unique in my observations.)  Family get-togethers can be hard for all the usual reasons.  In my family they’re also hard because everyone gives too much.

I know, it sounds crazy on paper.  You know what, though?  It’s really true.  Our gatherings have so much food that we cannot fit the leftovers in the freezer.  The kids will end up with stockings, Easter baskets, trick-or-treat bags or whatever we’re celebrating from multiple grandparents, in-laws, friends, aunts and uncles.  On Christmas, my daughter came home with enough stuff to start a small toy store and I wondered with no small amount of irritation where I was supposed to put it all.

Plus, you know, the waste.

In each conversation I’ve had about Easter dinner, I’ve cautioned restraint.  I plan things with an eye for economy and efficiency.  I am cheap and do not enjoy eating leftovers for days.  In this respect, I’ve always identified with the disciples and their frustration over Mary’s extravagant “anointing” of Jesus with an expensive pitcher of perfumed oil.  In Mark’s account, this act is even the tipping point for Judas, the event that propels him into betrayal.

“Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.” (Mark 14:4-5)

No joke.  I would want to rebuke someone harshly too.  I have, indeed, rebuked people harshly.  “You didn’t have to do that.”  “That’s too much.”  “There’s always plenty of food.”  “The kids will be happy just to play together.”

Sometimes the irrationality of generosity makes my head spin.  A years worth of wages!  Let’s donate to charity instead.

Even as I type this, I’m resistant to say what I’m about to say.  I’m stuck on these ideas I have.  I want to take this reflection in a direction that inspires us all (me included, because I need the inspiration) to go live perfectly austere lives where we give everything to the poor, save the earth and welcome the prisoner.  I want to say that this expensive oil-bath was only ok because it was Jesus, and he was about to die.  I really, truly do.  Especially in the middle of Holy Week, which is all about somberness and reflection and the awareness of suffering that still exists in our world.  This week in particular, as I participate in a beans and rice fast to remember that many people do not have enough to eat, as I plan to wake up in the middle of the night on Friday to take my turn at our prayer vigil, as I long for wholeness in our world, I want to craft a lecture about responsibility and stewardship.  And many of you are reading this and thinking the same thing.  You’re waiting for that, ready to close the browser window if I don’t say something–quick!–about making the world a better place by simplifying our lives.

But then this scripture is here, nestled right in the middle of Holy Week itself.  It is a mystery to me.  I want Jesus to say something other than, “Leave her alone.”  I want him to appreciate Mary’s good heart but then gently guide her toward a better use of her money.  I want him to say, “”whatever you do for the poor, you do for me.”  Instead, he just sits here, asking us to ponder the miracle of this love, in all its materialistic, extravagant wasteful ways.  He says, instead, “love those in your midst while you have them.  Love them and love them lavishly.”  After all, the ever-present reminder of Lent is that we will all die.  From ashes you came and to ashes you will return.  In other words, no one will be with us forever.

So for this week, just for this one week, I’m going to stick with the mystery of this story.  I’m going to remember that out-of-control generosity is a blessing.  When Easter comes and there are 20 pounds of potato salad, 10 desserts, a ham too big to fit on the table and the kids are covered in melted chocolate from their 7th Cadbury egg, I’m going to remember that the ability to give big is indeed a virtue.  After all, these things–the too-many dishes, the planning, the excitement, the very wastefulness of it all–are a generosity born out of love.  It is a beautiful thing.

Love grafitti